I give the chain attached to the radiator in her bedroom another tug. There’s enough slack for her to move about the room but not enough for her to get out. Her breath stinks like spoiled milk, so I inhale through my mouth. I try my best not to look directly at her face because if I do I won’t be able to go through with it. There are two thick layers of aluminum foil and garbage bags covering her bedroom windows. To secure the layers tight, I nail the quilt from off my bed to the wall. This has to work. Tomorrow I go back to school. If anyone were to find out they would take Mamí away. I’ll never let that happen. Not to Mamí. Not to us.
The idea for the chains came to me after reading an article on how this mother and father tied up their fourteen-year-old daughter to the radiator using a bike chain. They swore their daughter was possessed. The paper ran a photograph of the girl. There was nothing demonic about her but if you looked closely, you can see the slight film covering her eyes like gauze. Most people would have never noticed it, but I did. She had Mamí’s eyes.
“Tomorrow, I’ll be gone for a few hours but I’ll be right back,” I say to her. “It’ll be like when I went to the grocery store. I promise.”
Mamí doesn’t respond.
I leave her in the bedroom and close the door. Standing atop a chair I peek into her room through a small windowpane located above her bedroom door. A flashlight illuminates the remaining items in her room—the king-sized bed, framed pictures on the wall, and the small clock radio on the floor. Every time I flash the light on Mamí, she turns away. She faces the now-covered window, staring out as if she recalls a life past the quilt. A world of mothers cooking for their daughters, helping them get ready for their first day back to school, sitting down to watch silly television shows.
But, does she really remember?
Mamí starts to pace; the chain rattles against the wooden floor. The moaning begins again, a low guttural rumbling of hunger. The clock radio is on full volume so no one can hear, although some of the neighbors have complained about the noise. I’ve told them that she’s hard of hearing. When they threatened to complain to the landlord, I couldn’t stop my tears from flowing. The neighbors backed off, confused.
“I’m sorry, Mamí. This is only temporary,” I tell her from atop the chair. She continues to groan.
She’s hungry. I don’t know how to feed her.
The last time I cooked for her I caught a big rat from out in the alley. I waited all night for the area to be clear. Catching a rat was simple. A little cheese. A big trap. Easy. I seasoned the dead rodent with spices and mixed it with rice and beans. Mamí taught me how to cook. Although our kitchen is tiny, she loved spending time there, trying out new recipes she cut out from magazines. She always said, “Remember, Sarah, there’s nothing better than cooking for those you love.” The night I cooked the rat I wore a mask to keep from throwing up. When I slid the seasoned animal to her on a plate she didn’t even look at it.
“What do you want from me?” I yelled but she didn’t answer back. I knew then that a dead rat wouldn’t do. It had to be alive.
Mamí wasn’t like this before. She woke up sick one day, with her ankle covered in tiny bites. When I cleaned off the gunk, she shooed me away, saying that some insect must have bit her when she was dumping the garbage out in the huge receptacles located in the back of the apartment building. We applied ointment but the bites began to spread. Within days, splotchy redness covered her ankle, slowly rising up to her knees, her thighs. The redness went away but the fever didn’t. No matter what medicine I bought from the pharmacy, she didn’t get any better. Weeks passed and Mamí stopped returning phone calls, bathing, even talking. She couldn’t hold food down and her olive complexion turned even greener. Her once deep-brown eyes were covered in a milky residue, like clouds. Then our pets started going missing—first the parakeets, Desi and Lucy. I spent two days searching for our tiny black Chihuahua Midnight until I found what was left of him in her room. That’s when I knew she’d caught it.
The doctors call it “The N1H8 virus” but people on the streets call it “The H8TE.” Some say that you get it from the ants. That these tiny black ants have some sort of parasitic fungus. The fungus slowly poisons your insides, eating away your brains, your thoughts, your dreams. That’s what I read on the message boards, anyway. Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. I don’t even know how to pronounce it. No one really knows what’s going on—only that the H8TE is creeping up on the poorer neighborhoods. One person said it was an experiment made to get rid of us. Another said it was a punishment from God. There have only been a handful of cases but no one wants to talk about them, maybe for fear of catching it somehow. The city simply takes those infected away for observation. Those that are taken never come back. But that can’t happen to Mamí. I’m the only person who can protect and take care of her. I’m all she’s got. I’m named after her. Sarah.
Time to sleep. There are piles of clothes everywhere
—the floor, the kitchen table, the hallway leading up to the bathroom. Tomorrow, I’ll load the washing machine before leaving for school. Securing her room took all day. I’m so tired. If she saw the state this apartment was in she would be so mad. I lie down on the sofa and listen to her pacing.
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting at the far end of the cafeteria, avoiding everyone. But Brenda is hard to avoid.
“Where have you been all summer?” she asks.
Brenda and I were close. The type of friends who would go to each other’s houses without thinking about it, eat meals together, have sleepovers. Mamí would let us stay up late, watching scary movies, something Brenda’s mother never let her do. But that was before.
“We went away for a bit,” I say. “Stayed at my cousin’s house up north.”
“What cousin up north?” Brenda says. “You don’t have a cousin up north.”
Alison stands next to her. Her arms are crossed tightly in front of her chest. Alison transferred into our school last year. She’s sixteen years old like me but she looks way older. Brenda liked her right away because she was up for anything, but we’ve never gotten along. There’s this crazy jealousy thing with Alison. When all three of us hung out, she always had something to say about the way I dressed. I never felt the need to compete with her because I knew Brenda first. But I let go of all of that drama once Mamí got sick at the start of the summer.
“I called you like ten times but you never called me back,” Brenda says. She snaps her gum. Pop. Pop. Pop.
“I didn’t get those messages,” I lie. I heard every one of them. At first Brenda sounded all eager to see me but as the days went by the messages she left changed from confused to hurt to angry. “Our phone isn’t really working.”
“What are you talking about?” she says. “If you don’t want to hang out with us just tell us.”
“Sorry. I was just really busy this summer. I didn’t have time to talk on the phone.”
“Maybe she found better friends to hang with,” says Alison, always one to instigate. “Maybe she’s just a stuck-up, conceited, no-good, straight-up bitch.”
She bares her whitened teeth. I’ve witnessed Alison’s vicious tongue many times but this is the first time I’m the target. As much as I want to curse her out, I just sit and take it. Standing up to Alison can mean detention or worse. I can’t take any chances that the bored teachers on cafeteria duty will notice this exchange. This won’t last.
“You look like shit,” Alison continues. “What the hell are you wearing? You stink too, girl. Jesus, take a bath. Damn, Brenda, how can you be friends with her?”
It wasn’t so long ago when Brenda sat at our kitchen table. Mamí cooked Brenda’s favorite dish, lasagna. She leaned in when Mamí hugged her tight, accepting the embrace like family. And when Mamí kissed her forehead, Brenda smiled. Maybe she’ll back off without me having to give details. I look at Brenda and will her to see the raging storm inside my head. She must sense that I’m suffering. That I had a reason for ignoring her calls. That it wasn’t my fault.
“It’s my mother.” I direct my words only to Brenda.
“What is she saying?” laughs Alison. “The only person that girl can hang out with is her ugly mother. That’s where she gets her looks from.”
Brenda just stands there, popping her gum. Pop. Pop. Pop. She lets Alison lay into me like I’m some nobody, like I’m the new girl at school. Those seated around us start to enjoy the performance. Some guy even throws a spitball at me but I don’t look up. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters.
“What’s wrong with your mother?” Alison says. “Did she find out you’re stupid like her?”
Brenda laughs. Others chime in. The “momma” jokes begin and all I do is look down at the barely eaten sandwich on my lunch tray, wishing with all my being that they will get bored and move on. How can she turn on me so quickly? It’s as if the connection Brenda and I had only a couple of months ago never truly existed. I lower my head even more.
“Your momma’s so ugly that people dress like her for Halloween.”
“Your momma’s so ugly that, well, look at you.”
“Your momma’s so ugly that she can’t even get the H8TE. The H8TE even hates her.”
My heart pounds. These are only words. They know nothing about Mamí. Still, I pinch the side of my thigh so that the pain will overshadow their words. My fingers set poised to pinch again, only harder so that the tears so willing to expose me will be for the painful pinch.
“Man, shut up, you bunch of chickenheads!”
All eyes turn to the voice. It belongs to Ray. He’s seated a couple of tables away, surrounded by most of the soccer team.
“Leave Sarah alone,” he says.
“Oh, hey, Ray. How are you doing?” Alison says, trying to sound as syrupy as possible. “What did you do this summer? Brenda and I were just talking about you and . . .”
Ray ignores her and studies me. There’s a hint of disappointment on his face. He shakes his head and turns back to catching the highlights of a game on his phone. Only Ray can direct a room to shift like that. It’s because everyone respects him. He hangs out with the baseball players, the comic book nerds, and the theater geeks. Ray’s a chameleon like that. And for this reason alone, Alison and Brenda finally walk away.
I exhale and rub the side of my thigh. Only a few more hours. Mamí is fine. She’s staring out the covered window. I’ll be there shortly and everything will be all right. From the corner of my eye I see Ray glancing over at my table.
After last period, I rush out the door. I cross the football field at a quick pace. I must hurry. Cheerleaders gather at the far end of the field for tryouts. Brenda and I spent hours last spring perfecting our somersaults and kicks. We were getting good, good enough to make it on the team. Like a fool, I catch myself searching for her in the crowd.
“Yo! Wait up, Sarah! Where are you rushing to?”
I turn and see Ray running towards me. He lives right around the corner from me. When we were really young, like in elementary school, other kids thought he was my brother. Our mothers were really close. Old high school friends that grew up together to become two single moms. I don’t know why he’s trying to talk to me. I don’t have time.
“Why are you sprinting?” he says. “We’re heading in the same direction.”
A lot of the girls at school think Ray is cute. He has messy brown hair and caramel skin. Soccer is his game but he’s not like those soccer heads or pretty boys. His smile makes strangers feel comfortable. I heard he broke up with Lisa right before summer vacation. They were all adult about it. Apparently, they’re still friends.
“How was your summer?” he asks. “I didn’t see you in the usual spots.”
“I don’t have time for this,” I say. “I have to be somewhere.”
“I’m not trying to hold you up. I just figured we can walk together. Catch up on things.”
Brenda used to tease me about Ray. She said he’s been crushing on me forever. I pray he’s not trying to make a move now.
“So, what’s up?” he asks.
“Something is going on. That thing with Brenda,” he says. “I thought you guys were friends.”
I can’t explain what that was about. Retribution for never answering her calls. It’s not important.
“Nothing happened,” I mumble.
“Man, girls are mean,” he says. “And I’ve never seen you get all quiet like that before. You would have shred those two girls up without thinking twice about it. I don’t get it. Why didn’t you tell ’em off?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
My building comes to view. Only a few more blocks and I’ll be home. And these questions will stop.
Ray stands in front of me, blocking me from continuing.
“Mom wants to know what’s going on with your mom. She hasn’t returned her calls. Mom’s all worried. Is she feeling better?”
The urge to tell him washes over me like a strong wave. What would he say? Would he turn me in? Ray places his hand under my chin and nudges me to look up at him. I want to tell him. To tell someone. I don’t know what to do. If they find out, they’ll take her away. He would understand. He’s seen the reports on the news. It means death to get the H8TE. Maybe his mom could help us. Maybe they would know what to do.
I push his hand away.
“Don’t touch me.”
I brush past him, swallowing down the lump in my throat. He continues to walk besides me but he no longer pushes the subject. Instead, he talks of other things. Meaningless topics.
“Have you seen that new scary movie? It looks sick. Like crazy sick.”
I don’t answer. There’s no time for movies. I have to get to her. My pace is steady. When we reach my apartment building he stops but I keep moving.
“We should go check out that movie sometime,” he says. “If you want to talk or just need a break . . .”
I don’t wait for him to finish. Ray can’t help me. No one can. I pick up the overdue bills stuffed in the mailbox. While scrambling to find the house keys in my bag, I failed to notice the paper taped to our door. Now I snatch it and cringe at the words printed in harsh, red marker:
Apartment 4A is due for a paint job. We are also replacing the gates on every window. Please be available this Saturday from 9am—1pm. This is mandatory for all tenants.
This can’t be happening. I crumple the paper and slam the door shut behind me.
The days feel like I’m walking through a blizzard, barely able to see my surroundings. The clock at school slowly marks the time when I can return home. Nights are spent climbing the chair to check up on her. My flashlight illuminates the framed photos that cover one wall. She took so long to organize the images, to find the right frames for each photo. There’s one of us at a water park. She holds me while we barrel down a slide in a double tube. We have our eyes closed tight. Another photo is of her kissing me. It was my birthday and she baked the cake with purple icing.
But the one my flashlight lingers on the most is a picture of her alone, taken while she was on vacation in Mexico. This was before she had me, before she was Mamí. When she was simply Sarah. Her black hair is long and shiny and her cheeks are slightly red from too much sun. She stares straight into the camera with a slight smile. The picture was taken by Ray’s mom on one of their girls-only trips to Mexico. Mamí looks beautiful.
The H8TE has destroyed most of what she once was. Mamí’s spider thin now. Her face is tight with hollow eyes. Her once shiny hair is dull and crusted together in wiry bundles. She wears a housedress that’s more rags than dress, hanging off her breakable frame. Her nails are now claws, curling downward.
And yet, there are moments when I can recognize her past all the filth. It’s the way she tilts her head to the side as if she’s about to scold me. Mamí’s in there somewhere. I know this to be true. I feel it.
Only a few more hours before Saturday. There’s nothing I can do to stop the workers from coming to our apartment. The landlord threatened to evict us if we didn’t let them in. He also reminded me that we were past due on the rent and that the neighbors are complaining about the noise. I’ve considered ignoring the knocks on the door but I know I can’t. I have no plan. Just the fear that I’ll be alone forever.
And buried deep inside is a longing to be caught. To escape from all that moaning, the capturing of rats to feed her, the stench. I hate that I’m scared all the time. I’m tired of the lies, of the unpaid bills, of everything. This burden was meant for someone stronger. Smarter. Not me.
A mournful wail escapes from Mamí’s lips as if she can hear my thoughts.
Although a hip-hop song plays loudly on the radio, I still jump at the pounding on the door. He’s here. This is going to be it. People will read about us in the newspapers. I’ll become the psychotic evil daughter who chained her sickly mother to the bedroom. They’ll run a picture of me, all happy and normal. My black hair wavy and clean. A smile will reveal the slight gap between my two front teeth. Then they’ll run another of Mamí and how she looks now. The newspaper reporter will interview Brenda and Alison and they’ll both agree that I was never right in the head. Ray will sadly say he thought he knew me. There will be no mention of the virus. I’ll be hated. But worst of all, they’ll take Mamí away.
With trembling hands, I open the door. The worker is large and sweaty, someone I’ve never seen before. He carries a ladder and cans of paint. His round face is flushed and his dingy white overalls cover his bulging belly. Curls stick out from under a baseball cap.
“My mother is very sick,” I say, blocking the entrance. “You can work on the other rooms but not in her bedroom.”
“I don’t give a crap if your mom is high on drugs,” he says, using the ladder to push me away. “I gotta paint. Jose told me you were gonna give me trouble. Let me do my job.”
He unloads the buckets and drops a large tarp to the ground.
“You have to start in the living room,” I say. “It’s better to start here.”
“Listen kid, stop telling me what to do.” He mutters to himself some more. My eyes stay fixed on the bedroom. I can hit him with a bottle but what good would that do? I can’t carry him out. He’s too big. My heart races. I watch hopelessly as he prepares to work.
Someone else knocks on the door. I pray the worker doesn’t have an assistant. I peek through the peephole. It’s Ray.
“What is it?” I keep the door open only a crack.
“I’m heading to the store,” Ray says. “Wondering if you ladies needed anything.”
“No.” I go to shut the door but he wedges it open with his sneaker.
“No way are you going to close me out,” he jokes. “We’re practically cousins.”
His smile is open. Inviting. I want to grab hold of his hand and run.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” I yell. “Leave me alone.”
I slam the door shut. As soon as I hear the click of the lock, I spin around to find the worker charging towards Mamí’s bedroom. I run behind him.
He flings open Mamí’s door and fumbles in the darkness.
“Where’s the God damn lights?” he says. “I can’t see a damn thing.”
Just as my eyes adjust to the blackness of the room, Mamí pounces on the worker. She’s on him, gnawing on his arm. He screams out but she’s not letting go. The worker swings her body against the wall. Framed photos come crashing down. Glass shatters everywhere. I won’t let him hurt her. As he punches wildly at Mamí, I jump on his back, scratching and pulling his hair. Nothing but fear and anger courses through me. He won’t take her away. No one will.
The worker throws me off easily with nothing but a shrug and I fall on top of broken glass, wincing as shards embed themselves into my skin. He pries Mamí away, clutching his arm as blood gushes out. The radio masks his curses. Mamí growls in the corner of the room, panting like a rabid dog. I see what the worker must be seeing. The chains. The covered windows. The stench of dead animals. And her. His terrified face tells me all. Even in this consuming darkness, I can see clearly that we are the monsters. What have I done?
Mamí rushes to him but I yank at the chain.
“No, Mamí, don’t!” As I pull her away, she turns to me. We topple to the ground. Mamí quickly straddles my body. She opens her mouth. Blood drools down, covering my face. She’s about to chomp down.
“No!” I use all my strength to keep her from taking a bite. The worker stumbles to get out but slips on the scattered glass.
“Help me, please!” I yell. “Don’t leave me with her. She’s going to kill me.”
He reaches for the door.
“Mamí, please. It’s me. It’s Sarah,” I plead. “I’m your baby. It’s Sarah.”
She cocks her head to the side. Something clicks. Maybe for that moment she realizes who I am. Or maybe she figures that the worker is way meatier. She jumps off and barrels towards him. The worker screams as she bites into his shoulder. His cap falls to the floor. I run out and lock the door behind me. My whole body shakes. The radio is still on but it’s not loud enough to drown the hideous shrieks.
That thing inside that room is no longer Mamí. I don’t know what it is. That thing is taking me down with it. I can’t feed it. It will destroy me. And this is where it begins and ends. Because it is no longer about saving Mamí, saving our family, but about killing. For her. I can’t. Please, someone show me what to do.
“Help.” The worker’s voice is faint and garbled.
I don’t have to stand on the chair to know what she’s doing. There’s not much time left for him. I can’t allow this to happen. I run to the kitchen. The knife is right where she left it last, against a magnetic strip. The handle is large and heavy. The blade sharp. Can I do this? Is there such a being within me that can do the unthinkable?
The screaming has been replaced with smacking noises. I let the knife lead me back into the room.
She’s crouched over the worker who now lies silent. I want her to give me a sign. To let me know that the woman who raised me all alone is in there somewhere. She continues to feed, unaware of my presence. I take hold of the chain and slowly take up the slack. When the chain is taut, I inhale deeply. Then yank as hard as I can. She whips around. Snarling.
“If there’s a part of you still in there,” I ask, sobbing. “Please show me.”
Half-bent, she hisses, angry at being pulled away from her meal. Blood covers her whole body. Blood and much more. Unimaginable things. Her tiny hands ball open and close in a frenzied state.
“You loved me. Remember? I don’t want to do this. Please, don’t make me do this.”
Her panting increases as she sways back and forth like she’s following the beat of a song. The tattered clothes barely keep her protruding ribs concealed. I don’t recognize her. She’s just an empty host for this deadly virus. I step slowly in front of the worker. The growling escalates.
Pieces of the worker dangles from her lips. Her teeth slowly grate together. My hands are trembling, unable to keep the knife from quivering.
“Please don’t do this. Please . . .”
It runs towards me. Ready to tear into me. Claws dig deep into the flesh of my arm. Cloudy eyes only aware of the flesh, snatching it, trying to take it into its mouth. I stumble a couple of steps back. All it wants is to feed. Bulging veins pulsate on its neck and forehead. It draws me closer, baring its blackened teeth. Ready to take a bite. I’m just inches away.
It’s not human. This thing is not real. It’s not Mamí.
I thrust the knife deep, as far as it can go. The screaming is guttural and consumes everything. But it’s my voice that’s wailing.
Someone far away calls out to me. Ray. He’s at the door. A set of keys Mamí gave to his mom years ago hangs from his hand.
“Sarah,” he says. “What have you done?”
His eyes take in the man lying on the floor. Then he recognizes Mamí. His shoulders slump. He looks up at me, shaking his head. No words.
“I didn’t want to do it. I swear,” I say. “She got the virus, Ray. You have to believe me. She got it.”
He walks over to Mamí lying slumped by my feet. He checks her by placing a hand on her tiny wrist. Unafraid of all that gore.
“She’s dead,” he whispers.
The knife is still in my hand but it drops to the floor with a deafening clang. I too fall next to her and try desperately to wipe clean Mamí’s face, to show Ray that she’s in there somewhere. I say her name over and over again. Holding her cold small hand.
“We gotta get out of here,” Ray says, pressing down on my shoulder. He’s also shaking. “We gotta go now. Come on. Hurry.”
I can’t move.
Ray walks over to the worker. He nudges him with his sneaker. The worker’s grunt is barely audible but it’s there. A sign.
Nothing is right. Nothing will ever be right. I unchain Mamí and smooth her housedress to cover her exposed legs. My sweet Mamí.
I grab the picture of her taken in Mexico and clutch the image to my chest. The first step is hard, but I take it. I go through the door and don’t look back.